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Published:  23 July, 2008

Perceived by many as an aperitif, Champagne has not enjoyed as much success in restaurants and bars as many of the houses believe it deserves. James Aufenast looks at some of the measures being taken to improve Champagne's on-trade image

Tom Fortune, on-trade sales manager for Pol Roger, met sommelier Gearoid Devaney in L'Oranger restaurant early this year. Devaney didn't intend to spend long at the St James's restaurant as he had just been snapped up by chef Tom Aiken and his wife Laura for a new place they were planning to open in Chelsea, but he talked to Fortune for a while. Fortune had met Devaney through Matthew Wilkin, a sommelier who had worked with Devaney at The Capital, before Devaney left for France. Because Fortune knew Devaney he was able to get a meeting with Tom and Laura and present the Pol Roger Champagnes in a mini-tasting. The end result was a listing for Pol Roger in Tom Aiken's new place. The restaurant is tipped for a Michelin star when the guide comes out in January, then two in the next guide, or in the handbook the following year. That's known as a good sell. Ah, it's a funny one, the on-trade,' says Fortune. Sommeliers are very protective about what they want to list. It helps if you speak French. I'm lucky that I can. Sommeliers in London form a very close-knit community; if you mess up with one, you mess up with them all.' Sommeliers don't come to tastings; they pick and choose how they taste, and whom they allow in for private meetings. Vinothque (formerly Cave de Pierre) will ring up Wilkin at The Capital and say they're coming round with a new bottle, or they want to go through the whole range. That's fine,' says Wilkin. I know they won't waste my time and we will just taste Champagne. There aren't enough tastings with Champagne on its own: people tend to show me one Champagne, and then a whole range of other wines as well.' Wilkin lists 65 Champagnes, including four by the glass - Agrapart NVat 9.50 a glass (49 a bottle), 1995 Laurent-Perrier (11.50; 65), Gosset NV Brut Excellence (9.50; 49) and Gosset NV Ros (10.50; 59). But Champagne is overlooked on too many lists. That's because people - both customers and sommeliers - think of it as an aperitif, rather than as something to go with food. Customers also want a bit of a story to go with their wine and some Champagne brands, like top designers, don't have the romance of being sourced from small vineyards. Smaller Champagnes are becoming more popular because of this.'

On and off No wonder brands like Nicolas Feuillatte prefer the off-trade. Feuillatte has seen its supermarket sales shoot up, and its overall ranking, comparing its sales with those of other Champagne houses, go from seven to five in the last year (MAT, AC Nielsen, June 2003). Our growth in sales is enormous,' says public relations manager Sophie Vallejo. We're keen on classic discount promotions; you can't not do them. They're part of the UK market picture.' Feuillatte has signed a deal with a new wholesaler in the north of England, Morgenrot-Chevaliers, to complement its sales through Les Caves de Pyrene and Hayman Barwell Jones in the south. John Lewis has also been taking its more expensive Cuve Spciale and Rserve Particulire. It's not that we neglect the on-trade, but our aim is the off-trade,' says Vallejo. It takes longer to get into restaurants; there are a multitude of buyers; restaurants come and go. Restaurants all have long-established lists of Champagne brands, and cracking this is the tricky part.' Yet Feuillatte is one of the few Champagne brands to think the sun shines out of the supermarket aisles. According to Chloe Wenban-Smith, senior brand manager at Maisons Marques et Domaines, the UK distributor of Louis Roederer, Our rationale is clear. Any Champagne house wants a presence across all markets, but the on-trade is vital.' Roederer used to be retail-led, but switched focus, mainly because of image. The balance is now 60/40 in favour of the on-trade. The decision to alter our presence was based on the fact that your position is enhanced by a listing at a Ramsay restaurant, rather than on the shelf at Sainsbury's,' says Wenban-Smith.

In competition Roederer has been sponsoring the Young Chef, Young Waiter competition, organised by the Restaurant Association, for two years. Roederer makes sure UK chefs and waiters under the age of 25 go out to Champagne to see its vineyards, winery and chteau as part of the competition. After an initial round of judging in the UK, numbers are reduced for the trip to Champagne. At this year's final at London's Westminster Kingsway College in October, Carl Newbury from Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons was awarded the prize of top chef and Rodolphe Bertin from Almeida was named as best waiter. Gosset, the Champagne brand that its brand manager Rebecca Fraser says competes with Ruinart and Roederer, has been sponsoring the Roux Scholarship for eight years. This competition is directed at chefs between the ages of 22 and 30, and this year was won by Simon Hulstone from The Cotswold House Hotel. Gosset is listed at Le Gavroche, the Great Eastern Hotel and Smiths of Smithfield restaurant, all in central London, so those promoting the brand are doing something right. When we spoke to George Atkinson-Clark, managing director at Ruinart UK, he was on the way to a tasting dinner at the Chester Grosvenor, a small luxury hotel in the northwest town. The gourmet meal combined with sponsoring brand is the common option for many wine brands. Atkinson-Clark was taking his chef de cave, Jean-Philippe Moulin, to talk to regular diners at the hotel about Ruinart matched with food. Ruinart also sponsors the international sommelier competition over 32 European countries, with a final every year in France. The competition has been running in France for 20 years, and in the UK for 13. Loc Maillet, from the Great Eastern Hotel, won the British version in 2003; Enrico Bernardo from the Georges V in Paris, took the European title. This sommelier competition seems the best-targeted piece of marketing among Champagne restaurant brands, aiming at precisely those who will be considering whether to list Ruinart in future years. Louis Roederer's approach, judging both waiters and chefs, also makes sense. Gosset seems to be missing its market by sponsoring a competition for chefs only, but Fraser is committed to the award. You can't have a restaurant without a chef. We do get sales as a result of the competition,' says Fraser. There does appear to be a certain logic in this. Although when conducting Harpers Wine Courses for Chefs in the late 1990s we found that many in the kitchen had plenty to learn about wine, there is a trend for increasing numbers to leave the kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurants in London and set up their own places, often in formerly unremarkable pubs in the provinces. A recent example is Michael Bedford, previously Gary Rhodes' head chef, who moved to Trouble House in Gloucestershire. The chef becomes the owner, cook and wine buyer, all in one. Hence Keith Isaac MW, general manager at Patriarche Wine Agencies, which distributes Champagne Jacquart, defends his decision to target pubs through his deal with a new distributor. Jacquart is the pouring brand at Marco Pierre White's White Star Line group of restaurants, and Patriarche has a deal with distributors Wine Treasury in London. Thanks to a tie-in with Madison Drinks - a wholesaler that predominantly deals in beer - however, Jacquart will be looking at listings at the broader end of the on-trade. There is no reason why pubs can't do Jacquart by the glass, rather than Champagne from a cheap cash n' carry,' says Isaac. We're not talking about dodgy back-street boozers; these are good gastropubs.' It's important to look beyond the fine dining rooms of central London restaurants to other markets, according to Tom Fortune at Pol Roger. In terms of what buyers are taking, London is not really up for grabs. We've spent time at Pol getting volume through the door. Now we're going to work with accounts that are already active.' Laurent-Perrier has a greater proportion of its sales in the on-trade and a strong London presence, but we're developing sales in Scotland, the northeast and the northwest', says managing director David Hesketh MW. Michael Galbraith has also joined the company from Oddbins to work with wholesalers, encouraging them to sell the brand.

Bottle or glass? Isaac at Jacquart reckons brands can get serious volume from the large restaurant groups, but he's frustrated by the attitude to Champagne by the glass. He thinks this is one of the biggest limits on quantities sold. More restaurants are doing by the glass, but there are an awful lot that could do it, that don't. There is a level below the absolute top-end places where you can't get Champagne by the glass. Their argument is wastage. But you reflect the loss of some liquid at the end of the bottle in the price.' Joe Thornton, on-trade director at Mot Hennessy, is trying to persuade bars to pour the current available vintage of Mot by the glass. Salt and Embassy bars in London, Gleneagles hotel in Scotland and Hotel du Vin in Brighton have taken him up on this offer, with 1996 available and 1998 pourable next year. Even Mot's Dom Prignon brand, with its 66% on-trade share, has been served by the glass at 50 outlets at various stages this year. Mot has always committed funds to restaurants, working with Harpers & Queen since 1998 in its restaurant awards. Both it and Lanson have also launched older vintages this year as a way of generating some excitement', according to Thornton, although disgorging of Mot's 1961, 1973, 1982 and 1988 is taking longer than expected. Isaac at Jacquart, however, is dubious about how many customers are moving away from non-vintage to other styles. Our Blanc de Blancs is a small add-on, not a major sale. Everyone says they are increasing the quantities sold to restaurants of other styles, but if you look at the statistics, non-vintage makes up at least three-quarters of the market, and the rest is left for all the other categories. That 25% figure hasn't moved.' Laurent-Perrier has every one of its different Champagnes listed by the glass in a new, Laurent-Perrier-named bar at the Savoy hotel in London. These bar sponsorships with well-reputed hotel groups are a recent phenomenon. Bollinger has taken up naming a bar at the Grosvenor House hotel, on Park Lane in London. Krug is likely to sponsor a London bar in the next 18 months, although Andrew Barraclough, marketing manager at Krug's distributors Paragon, denies he has such plans. At present Krug has put its name to a private dining room at the Dorchester, which opened in May.

Pricey problems Such promotions are about image building rather than sales. In terms of the bottom line, Champagne has had a tough year. We had a desperate first quarter and an outstanding second quarter. Then October has been difficult again,' says Atkinson-Clark at Ruinart. The continued struggle for UK restaurants to get customers has hit Champagne, as well as all other suppliers. Then the continuing strengthening of the euro led to price increases - Gosset had a small rise of around 1 to 2%, Krug around 4% - and these are expected to go up again early next year. Taittinger will go up by 4%; Jacquart's price will rise, as it did in spring 2002, early in 2003, says marketing controller Lynn Murray. Atkinson-Clark expects most brands to go up in price by 4-6%. The rises are also the result of the difficult 2003 harvest, which has produced a small crop, and hence depleted reserves in the cellars. Moulin, chef de cave at Ruinart, doesn't think it is serious - yet. If last year's weather conditions are repeated in 2004, then it will be a problem. At the moment we can cope with the result of the harvest in 2003, but the situation will become serious if the same happens again.' Isaac at Jacquart says he finds it hard to get a straight answer from Champagne on stock levels', but a warm winter and spring followed by sudden frost cut 50% of the harvest. It produced the unusual situation in many vineyards of a second harvest. Grapes ripened so early because of the hot summer that they left time for those buds that weren't damaged by the frost to ripen as grapes late in August. It still left a serious dearth of acidity, and volume, however. To further complicate matters, many houses will be renegotiating their contracts with grape growers next year. Moulin doesn't think growers will make excessive demands beyond the average of E4.25 per kilo last year: We have all learnt from our experience in the '90s; they seem to understand now that many brands can't sell enough bottles to recoup very high contract prices. But you never know: growers will always want more.' Another piece of bad news in 2003 was that Tom Stevenson couldn't complete his Champagne and Sparkling Wine Guide in time for the printers, and it is to be the last of his Parker-style tasting encyclopaedias of the Champagne trade. At least this 2003 guide was downloadable off the Internet. Stevenson combined raw enthusiasm: Love this. Great acidity. Rich, intense' - as he described the Jacquart 1987 Brut - with great knowledge: quality and style throughout the 1990s has exceeded that of most so-called grandes marques. Couple this with a focus on the primary market to the detriment of the firm's BOB business and it is easy to appreciate just how close it was to premier league promotion.' This is about Duval-Leroy - both comments are from the 2003 edition of the guide. Champagne is in a state of flux, as the area is moved and tweaked to determine the precise appellation area for sparkling wine grapes over the next ten years. The Champenois are at last confronting the fact that one vineyard can command a price twenty times that of a property on the other side of the street, with no obvious difference in terroir. Often it's because a mayor at the turn of the century didn't bother to push his village as suitable for Champagne grape growing,' says Moulin. Champagne wasn't then the prestigious product it is now.' The region is conducting experiments on microclimate and soil that will see gradual realignment. But, on the positive side, at least the threat of the grey market has receded. Pol used to be clobbered by grey market stock,' according to Tom Fortune. But people aren't making money on it so much any more' - because of the strength of the euro. And those such as George Atkinson-Clark, who have built a name for themselves, as well as their Champagne brands, in the UK, are looking forward to next year. Atkinson-Clark says seven years of pushing Ruinart is beginning to pay off. We're not doing anything different; the wine still tastes the same. But it takes a long time to build a premium brand. There's political uncertainty ahead in 2004, and the threat of interest rate rises, but I'm bullish about next year.' So the restaurant trade may be difficult: Many houses are offering very aggressive deals in the on-trade,' says Murray at Taittinger, and restaurants can have very high expectations.' But, it's a more sustainable part of the business', believes Hesketh at Laurent-Perrier. People are relying on promotions in the off-trade far too much. Everyone realises the activity there is not sustainable. We're building better, long-term relationships in the on-trade.'